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How to Buy a Turkey

Created November 8, 2019
It’s time for your big shopping trip, here’s what you need to know about buying, storing and thawing your turkey.
Ever find yourself furiously looking up the difference between fresh and frozen turkey, or Googling the answer to “how much turkey do I need?” while standing in a grocery store aisle? Never again! We’ll tell you everything you need to know to figure out the perfect turkey for your gathering, plus answer all your questions about what to do with the bird when you get home, from storage to thawing.

How to Buy a Turkey

When it comes to such a consequential dish, shopping anxiety is real. Avoiding stressful indecision is as easy as learning the most important factors to consider when buying a turkey, including: what size turkey to buy, whether you’ll want fresh or frozen turkey and the type of turkey that’s right for you. With these decisions made ahead, you can avoid spending any extra time at the jam-packed grocery store.

Size of Turkey to Buy

Wondering how much turkey to buy for your guests? The best rule of thumb is to plan for one pound of turkey per person—and we’re talking the whole, uncooked turkey. So, for 12 people, a 12-pound bird. That’ll give you plenty for the table as well as some leftovers, which are especially nice on Thanksgiving. Turkeys can range in size anywhere from 8 to 24 pounds.

Fresh versus Frozen

  • Fresh Turkey: A turkey that’s never been stored at a temp below 26F is considered fresh, so a fresh turkey will never have been frozen and thawed. These types of birds have become more popular in recent years. Often you’ll need to order a fresh bird in advance, which is actually a good thing. Since it’s best to refrigerate your uncooked turkey for two days or less, it’s nice to be able to order it ahead, so your turkey is guaranteed to be ready, and then pick it up last minute. You can expect a fresh turkey to cost more than frozen, because of the handling required and perishability of the bird.
  • Frozen Turkey: A turkey that’s been flash-frozen—rapidly chilled to temperature of 0F—after harvest is sold as frozen. Flash freezing helps keep the turkey nearly as fresh as it was the day it was frozen, so there’s nothing wrong with buying a frozen turkey. It’s what most people do and, cooked right, it will turn out delicious. The only catch is you need to buy your frozen turkey far enough in advance to thaw it—more details about how to thaw a turkey. Thawing also takes up space in your refrigerator, so factor that into your plans—the week before Thanksgiving is a good time to clean out the fridge.

Types of Turkey

Which Type of Turkey is Right for You? There are many types of turkeys to choose from, and the kind you should select depends on the occasion and your personal preferences.

  • Free-range: If a turkey is free-range, it means the bird has been given access to the outdoors. Free-range turkeys are generally moist and have a robust turkey flavor but can be a bit more expensive than other options.
  • Organic and Natural: When a turkey is labeled as organic, it means it’s free of hormones and antibiotics. Organic turkeys may be slightly more expensive, but they often have a delicious, substantial flavor. If a turkey is labeled as natural, it means it is free from preservatives and artificial ingredients and can only be “minimally processed.” Again, these turkeys might be slightly more expensive, but are, in general, more flavorful.
  • Kosher: For a turkey to be labeled as kosher, it needs to be processed in accordance with Jewish dietary law under rabbinical supervision. Kosher turkeys are soaked and salted, then triple rinsed. For this reason, they typically don’t require additional brining.
  • Heritage: Wondering what a heritage turkey is? If a turkey is labeled as heritage, it means it comes from some of the first domesticated turkeys farmed by English settlers. There are two main heritage breeds: American Bronze and Bourbon Red, which both have a bit more dark meat than other types of turkeys. Heritage turkeys are some of the best birds to slow-cook because of their moist, toothsome texture. They are substantially more expensive than other turkeys.

Because of the difference in fat content [between conventional and heritage birds], it’s even more important not to overcook heritage breeds. Additionally, their bones are denser, so they can be considerably more difficult to carve. It’s still doable—just take your time and be patient.
Because of the difference in fat content [between conventional and heritage birds], it’s even more important not to overcook heritage breeds. Additionally, their bones are denser, so they can be considerably more difficult to carve. It’s still doable—just take your time and be patient.

  • Self-Basting: A self-basting turkey is generally less expensive than organic or natural turkeys. It has been filled with ingredients like salt, butter, or chicken fat to make it more flavorful and moist—hence, there’s no need to baste it. In general, these turkeys produce juicier meat than other varieties.
  • Conventional: Conventional turkeys will be less expensive than organic turkeys, but may have added hormones or antibiotics, depending on where they come from.

If you like, talk to your butcher about what types of turkey he recommends for the cooking method and meal you’re planning.

How to Store a Turkey

So, you’ve purchased a turkey, selected your cooking method and have a killer recipe to boot … now what? If you want to keep your turkey frozen, remember that it can be stored in the freezer for up to 12 months. But if you’re making it soon, a fresh, whole turkey should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator and used within 1 to 2 days of purchase. Always keep the turkey in the packaging from the store; the wrapping it comes in is designed to keep bacteria out and freshness in. Taking it off may expose your bird to bacteria.

How to Thaw a Turkey

There’s more than one way to thaw a turkey. So no matter if you’ve got days, or you’re scrambling day-of, there’s a way to get it done—while still following food safety practices.

Ways to Thaw a Turkey

Here are the three ways to thaw a turkey, recommended by the USDA:

  • In the refrigerator: This method will take the longest but it’s also the simplest, with the least risk of cross contamination. The only catch is planning ahead. Use our thawing chart (below) for guidelines on how long it will take, based on size. When thawing your turkey in the fridge, leave it in its original packaging and set it inside a deep pan to catch any liquid that runs off. After thawing this way, your turkey will be okay in the refrigerator for another day or two before cooking.
  • In the microwave: This is the fastest method of safely thawing a turkey and it can be a real timesaver, if you find your turkey is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning. The only catch is that this method won’t work on large turkeys. If your turkey is not too large, this can be a good solution. Check your owner’s manual for instructions on minutes per pound and be sure to unwrap turkey before. Helpful hint: Most owner’s manuals are available online; search by the model number listed on your machine. For food safety reasons, it is recommended to cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
  • In cold water: This method will work for any size turkey, and while not as fast as microwave thawing, it can still be a lifesaver, if you don’t have days to thaw your turkey. To do it, immerse the bird in a large plastic bag, bucket or stockpot. Change the water every 30 minutes to ensure it is cold. It will take approximately 30 minutes per pound. Alternately, clean your sink thoroughly, plug it and immerse turkey in its cold water bath. This method makes changing the water easier, but you will need to thoroughly clean your sink and surrounding countertop when finished thawing. For food safety reasons, it is recommended to cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

There is one way you should never thaw your turkey: Leaving it on the counter at room temperature. By doing this, you’re creating an environment where bacteria can multiply rapidly, leading to food poisoning—an awful ending to a special occasion!

When to Thaw a Turkey

The larger the turkey, the more time it will take to thaw. The timetable below will give you an approximate idea of how far in advance you need to begin the process and includes times for refrigerator thawing and cold water thawing. Remember, if you’re using your microwave to thaw, you’ll need to refer to your owner’s manual where you should be able to find information about minutes per pound.

How Long to Thaw a Turkey

Check this chart well in advance of turkey day—since it could take up to 5 days to thaw your bird, plus 1 to 2 days of additional time, if you plan to brine. Note, once your turkey is thawed, you should not refreeze it without cooking first.

Turkey Thawing Chart

Turkey Size (weight)

Approximate Thawing Time in Refrigerator

Approximate Thawing Time in Cold Water

8 to 12 lbs

1 to 2 days

4 to 6 hours

12 to 16 lbs

2 to 3 days

6 to 8 hours

16 to 20 lbs

3 to 4 days

8 to 10 hours

20 to 24 lbs

4 to 5 days

10 to 12 hours

You’re doing great. Next up is How to Cook a Turkey!